If one were putting together a fine dining destination list for Brisbane, Aria would certainly be on it. It has a slew of hats and awards from assorted food and travel guides. Our expectations were, therefore, high, when we went there to mark a special occasion.
Aria is one of a number of restaurants in the Eagle Street Pier complex, providing a panoramic view out to the iconic Story Bridge. If you haven’t been there before, it does take a bit of wandering around to find it, as you won’t stumble across it walking past on the ground floor (it’s upstairs), and there aren’t obvious signs pointing to it.
We were greeted by waitstaff as we passed through the glass entrance doors, and after letting them know the reservation details, we were shown to a table.
The interior of the restaurant is quite classical and understated in style, with muted lights, and shades of brown everywhere, from the wooden floors to the wood-paneled walls, to the chairs padded in tan upholstery. In keeping with expected style rules, the tabletops were draped with white tablecloths. Laid on the tables were menus in black folios, and cutlery laid out in parallel, waiting to be used for courses of food. Lively jazz played over the speakers, with a bit too much rustling, hissing base beat. At one point, it sounded like ambient techno.
The menu contained options for constructing your own two, three, or four course meal from dishes in different sections of the menu (essentially entrées, mains, and desserts), or going with their seasonal tasting menu, the degustation of seven courses. Given that it is supposed to show off the best of what the kitchen can do, we opted for the degustation.
First to come to the table was a complimentary starter of goat’s cheese, dehydrated grapes, dried chickpeas with cumin, and olive oil. The smoothly piped goat’s cheese had a tartness that certainly made the salivary glands work, a warm up for the dishes to follow. The chickpeas were crisp and light, and the dehydrated grapes weren’t raisins, but only slightly wrinkly bursts of sweetness more aromatic than a normal grape.
Next to appear were sourdough rolls, and a choice of either seeded butter or Pepe Saya cultured butter to go with it. We picked the seeded butter, and learned that it had come from Sydney. It was not bad, smooth and creamy, but would have been nicer with a hint of saltiness. The sourdough rolls had a nice chewy density.
The first actual degustation dish was listed on the menu as spanner crab, grilled cos, citrus, and apple. The spanner crab flesh was sweet and tender, and had citrus hints. The cos lettuce leaves were slightly smokey, but not overpowering. There were thin raddish slices for a faint crunch. The apple slices imparted more natural sweetness. These were all drizzled with a tart, punchy peppery sauce. It was quite a pleasant, light beginning.
Following this was a dish listed as brussel sprouts, parsnip, sherry, and garlic flowers. The brussel sprouts were served three ways, shredded sprouts on the bottom of the dish, roasted half sprouts as the main body of the dish, and just cooked leaves scattered on top. The outer leaves of the roasted brussel sprouts were crisp, and the inside tender but not mushy. They had that almost meaty, not quite bitter flavour, highlighted by the sweet sherry sauce drizzled over the top of them. There was a piped blob of parsnip puree on the side of the main heap, and parsnip chips atop the heap. The puree was sweet and smooth, contrasting well with the brussel sprouts, and the chips added a brittle crunch to the dish. There was a roasted fragrance from the garlic flowers as the dish was brought to the table, but they didn’t taste as strong as they smelled.
Next was wagyu bresaola, parmesan, and fried bread. The plating of this was interesting, the wagyu slices draped over the pastry, so they looked like mopey trees. The bresaola was air dried and aged 3 months. It tasted like jamon, salty and meaty. The fried bread was essentially like a choux pastry, and it was filled with a parmesan cream that was smooth and not too salty. The bread itself had a little crunch on the outside, and was faintly sweet. There was also a scoop of a mix of miso and pearl barley on the side of these other components. This was mildly salty, and had a green flavour. It had bits of chewy texture from the pearl barley, but without the fibrous central bits. Altogether, it was quite tasty.
The fourth dish was Moreton Bay bugs, shiitake, and seaweed butter. There was the aroma of seafood char as it came to the table. The plating was quite simple, the de-shelled Moreton Bay bugs, the mushrooms and greens, and the pool of seaweed butter placed near each other on the plate but separate. The bugs were juicy and fragrant, nicely just cooked and tender. The mushrooms had been pickled in chinese rice wine vinegar, and were plump, carrying sweet, faintly tangy, and herbal flavours. The greens with it were like a fleshy seaweed, like samphire, but not, with a faint bitterness. The seaweed butter was like a hollandaise, and had the flavour of nori, which had been pureed and mixed through it. That imparted quite Japanese notes to the dish, especially when combined with the seafood.
The fifth dish was smoked veal short rib, beetroot, and horseradish. We were told that the slab of rose veal had been brined for three days, cold smoked for six hours, then slow cooked for ten hours. It is worth noting that rose veal is more ethical than regular veal production. Read more here. It was accompanied by crumbed veal tongue, and a scoop of beetroot with creme fraîche and horseradish. The smoked rose veal had a pastrami coat on a couple of its sides. The meat was quite tender, and pulled apart easily. It was savoury, peppery, and slightly pickly. The crumbed veal tongue was sort of like a sweetbread, but had a meaty, somewhat chewy texture rather than being that melt in the mouth texture of actual sweetbreads. It also didn’t taste like very much in itself. Overall, it was quite a salty dish, and one felt saturated by the time you got about halfway through. The horseradish, creme fraîche and beetroot mix gave it a bit of heat, for something slightly different, but it didn’t provide the moisture that the dish sorely needed. Overall, it came off as a dry dish that was sorely lacking a sauce.
Next was roast duck, red cabbage, rhubarb, and pecan. We were told that it had been a Peking and Muscovy cross duck that had been grain-fed. The duck had been cooked so that the fat had been rendered down. The skin wasn’t crispy though. The meat was disappointingly overcooked, so it was sinewy, chewy, and had an almost powdery mouthfeel. The rhubarb had been prepared in an orange pickle, and was very sour. We found that any more than the finest sliver overpowered anything else you tried to eat with it. The red cabbage, red wine, and butter puree was also too sour. While there were a couple of crunchy candied pecans on the plate, they did not help to balance the other acidic flavours. This was not a good dish, and we found both this and the preceding veal dish hard work to get through rather than a pleasure to eat.
Before the final dessert dish was a palate cleanser of lychee sorbet and yuzu sake. The sorbet had a very fine grain, and had just a faint lychee flavour. The tart, citrussy yuzu liquid had a stronger flavour, and carried heat from the sake.
The dessert that came with the seasonal tasting menu was meant to be the apple tarte tatin with apple sorbet. Looking at the list of desserts available in the fourth course section if you constructed your own meal from their options, the coconut and raspberry soufflé looked far more interesting. Despite that same apple tarte tatin dish being in that fourth course section as an equivalent option if you were putting together your own multi-course meal, they served us one soufflé to share. The soufflé had a good rise out of its copper pot. It had a marshmallow light airy texture, and had a couple of raspberries baked in. Those raspberries were little sour punches though, and the raspberry sauce that accompanied it was also tart. The soufflé itself certainly was more neutral than sweet, making this again, a poorly balanced dish that was predominantly sour. It was an unimpressive finish to the meal.
Overall, we found the degustation to be poorly paced. It felt like there were a lot of lulls between courses. Empty plates sat on the table for a long time. After they were cleared, there was another long wait before the next dish was brought out. It had also taken quite a while before our meal orders were taken to begin with, and we were left just sitting there waiting, after having decided on what we wanted from the menu ages before.
For $185 per person, one expects the meal to be pretty darn delicious. Was it? No. While it began promisingly, almost half the dishes were less than pleasant. When you go to a high-end restaurant, you expect them to be able to cook their proteins properly, and perhaps have tasted some of the dishes themselves so they know how the flavours actually sit together. Sadly, nothing else about the Aria experience really blew us away either. While the wait staff described each dish to us, it was frequently a strain to hear them over the music and other patron chatter. Different staff presented different dishes to us, then, as mentioned, we were left for long periods of time. It seemed that those who ordered their wines and alcoholic drinks were fussed over more. While we don’t expect to be fawned over, our interactions with the waitstaff felt distant and clinical. Only once were we asked how we found the meal.
Aria didn’t feel like a justifiable expense, particularly in comparison to other degustations at similar and less cost that delivered a far better experience. See O.MY, Urbane, and the Gelato Messina Creative Department for examples of how things should be done.
Price point: Seasonal tasting menu $185 per person. Two course meal $95. Three course meal $130. Four course meal $155.
Address: Eagle Street Pier, 45 Eagle Street, Brisbane CBD
Phone: 07 3233 2555